HTML eMail

Since you asked.. I have a few things to say about the idea that HTML email has “benefits”.

Sometimes, in all the marketing noise and thought pollution, you have to stop, think and question some commonly accepted bull shit.

First the obvious stuff. Why send HTML when you can send a link to a website? Beats me. Let me try and understand the benefits of HTML email. Ok, it allows you to create pretty marketing emails.. which I could argue contributed to the complexity, size and increased volumes of spam and the birth of very creative phising activities in some African countries… not to mention the truly delightful quality of HTML markup these MUA’s produce.. have you ever looked at that shit?

Honestly.. and you use the word “benefits”? I would rather eat broken glass than send HTML email.

Maybe HTML email adoption trends correlate to rapid IQ and attention span drops? It’s like bubble wrap for the ignorant masses.. hours of mindless amusement.

Next, allow me use a simple example.

There are two kinds of people in this world. One will buy an all-in-one-fax-printer-scanner-copier-phone and bask in its compact awesomeness. The other will go and buy a fax machine, a printer, a scanner, a copier and a phone.

You could argue there are benefits to both routes.

In this example I like the idea of buying a set of devices that do their job, only their one job and does that job really well and reliably. More zen in my mind.

Which one are you?

Simplicate, don’t spread complexity pollution.

I hope you can see how this relates to the idea of bolting HTML features onto an email client when you have a perfectly fine web browser.

Another reason I don’t like all-in-one thinking is that simplicating and separating jobs avoids inherent faults in each to spill and blend.

“all in one” thinking == “kludge” thinking.

“UNIX improvements aren’t.”

Obviously this is not 100% true, but it brings across a point very elegantly.

You see, there is a distinct difference between true innovation and gradual incremental perceived improvement.

Think about that for a second. Plain vanilla, garden variety (RFC standard) email was an innovation.

These days it’s even more of a challenge to consistently apply principles.

Battlefield life is full of logic traps. HTML email is a trap.

22 thoughts on “HTML eMail

  1. Hmm, I’m not so sure about this. Your blog post, for example, has a link, some text in bold and a blockquote. I think this adds real value and aids readability.

    Is there a way to do this without HTML email?

  2. I’m busy compiling a comprehensive reply…

    Will mail it to you. Oh wait, I can’t, because you’ll miss half of what I’m going to say.

    Just kidding about the 2nd part, but I will reply 🙂

  3. Hi Henk


    YES there _are_ *many* ways to “do” this with /plain/ text.

    You can even put “hyper” links to websites in plain text as I suggested in my post.

  4. Joe, the problem with the textile type markup you suggest is that it _just does *NOT*_ pass the /dad test/.

    Although it’s somewhat cool and geeky, it’s pretty ugly and inaccessible to the vast majority of people who use the internet.

    It’s time for technology, and your email client, to catch up with what people want!

    Now, if I could only convince 37Signals to fix their Writeboards for WYSIWYG…

  5. Henk,

    Those same people seem to love using SMS.. no markup there.

    I can kinda buy the idea that it could be useful to have bold-markup.. but that’s about it.

    The commonly accepted standard is *bold*. Simple.

  6. I agree with Henk, perhaps your post stems from a bad html email experience when you were a kid?

    Like most things there is a fine line that should not be crossed. I don’t mind receiving a newsletter from a client or even some marketing junk from a company I’ve given spam permission to. But the HTML and content still needs to achieve the initial goals with the aid of images, etc. If it gets to hectic and I’m bombarded with image intensive bull… I would also rather chew on some glass shards!

  7. Hey idale

    I’d suggest people just send a link to a website hosting the newsletter. That’s what we always do. Simple.

  8. Also, found this..

    “A July 10, 2003, Lucid Marketing survey indicated that 53 percent of AOL respondents said they prefer plain text emails to HTML ones.”

    “90% of the unsolicited junk email is sent as HTML email.”

  9. Hi Johann,

    I thought about writing this long story with a comprehensively reasoned paragraph for each of several points of usability I’m of the opinion HTML mail addresses. I even considered countering your view on logic and the principle behind applying principles. Even though I’m short on time at the moment (please excuse my slackness), I wanted to do things properly, seeing as you’ve gone to the effort of explaining your (misguided) view so thoroughly in your post.

    But then, when I started creating an example of a typical business mail while trying to get it as effectively communicative in plain text as in HTML, I realised that my explanations would be a waste of time. It turned out to be as easy as simply using a couple of HTML features that I (and most people I do business with) use on a daily basis. Almost like a predictable recital of a list of what you’d probably call typical rubbish. I guess it’s like a list of selling points on a Microsoft information sheet, if the previous sentence didn’t get you riled up enough. So without further ado, my lazy counter-argument:

    HTML mail
    Plain text mail

    Oh, and you’ll notice I’m not using newsletters as an example (contrary to what seems to be a mini-point in your post). They’re a different breed alltogether. I thought I’d focus on the kind of stuff one deals with every day.

  10. Martin, if you want to use rich markup just send me a PDF. It’s an open standard, mostly looks the same on all platforms, usually prints well and generally not open to the creativity of html rendering engines.

    The snag with rich markup (I find) is that it’s generally not good for the flow of a conversation. Arrange a meeting or even send a document format that supports change tracking if you must.. else, just see it as a read-only document and make a PDF.

  11. Joe, the whole point is that you want to facilitate flow with dynamic comments back and forth in a conversation using rich markup. The moment you break the ease of this flow (and the ease of expressing things using rich markup), you break the conversation. Every single time someone in a thread I’m involved in converts something to plain text, I’ve found that I have to spend at least double my cognitive energy trying to make sense from that point onwards. Not good.

    Even if that weren’t an issue, guess how many people can easily create a PDF, edit it recreate it?

  12. M, I suspect you and your close circle of email friends like html email because you are all used to it.. it looks the way you expect it to look and you all probably use the same MUA on the same OS.

    Print or save to PDF from most (free) word processors.

  13. I thought about this again on the way to work..

    The really beautiful thing about plain text email is context.

    The MS (corporate dummy) world that only understands top-posting will never get it. Plain text email with the right quoting and indenting is so much easier to read.. if you understand the concept of context.

    I value structured thinking, in context with clear unambiguous language in light markup, more than rich markup.

    I actually think that the limited markup options create “coherence and a consistent style”.. which makes it easier to deal with large volumes of mail.

    I also suspect that most people who like html email can not touch type.

    Reminds me of the connection between unix and language.

    “UNIX remains rooted in the culture of the word.” I think the same goes for plain text email. It’s about the language more than the pretty pictures.

  14. A few points:

    Firstly, I suspect my circle of e-mail friends is just slightly larger than yours.

    Secondly, your PDF argument is a joke. Your claim of simplicity, keeping things flowing etc, just flew out the window with penguin wings. Do you really think anyone is going to create/edit/re-create a PDF in the course of a busy day communicating with several people? What if just one of them doesn’t have a PDF printer installed? I can guarantee the odds of this being the case are better than the odds of the person not being able to read/edit HTML mail.

    Thirdly, quoting and indenting is probably the lamest way to structure e-mail communication yet conceived by you UNIX fools. Context doesn’t work so well when you need to open up several mails to figure out what was said earlier in the conversation, all because you think it makes sense to purge the last mail of everything but what you’re replying to. Hey, maybe you like having a crapload of windows open. I don’t. So I’ll stick to top-posting, thanks.

    In conclusion, you’re a muppet.

    PS: I bet I can touch type faster than you anyway.

  15. M,

    1. And you know this how? By comparing our facebook friend numbers? *grin*

    2. My suggestion was to see PDF as a read only rich markup format, if you want to send some pretty report, proposal or brochure of sorts.

    3. Works well, no need for many windows.

    3b. Fuck you, only I call people muppets. Do you want to take this outside? (-:

    4. I touch type on a way more elite keyboard layout.

    Face it, you are an institutionalised Microsofty… but, thanks for reading, we still love you. All I wanted was for people to indicate where their email signatures start.

  16. J,

    1. So you’re admitting that you’re a social media slut-whore?

    2. Read-only doesn’t cut it in daily business interaction. Neither does the inability to use mark-up. Of course, I know you think I’m wrong. I think I’m not.

    3. OK, fair enough. Doesn’t for me.

    3b. Fuck you too. I’ll call whoever I want a muppet, whenever I want. FYI, I’ve been using the term since way before you thought it was cool. Remind me to call you a muppet in person sometime, it doesn’t have quite as good a ring to it in digital format.

    4. Yeah, but these days not on a Microsoft keyboard, right? Much like you also use SMS (*gasp*). Who would’ve known…

    I’d like to write a thorough explanation of why I think you don’t get it, but I’ll stick to being concise. You don’t get it. I (we) use Microsoft as a platform to build on at this moment in time because it’s the best platform out there, for one simple reason: integration. Not pipe-dream open standards interoperability, but real integration. The kind you seem to think is silly. If it isn’t the best platform anymore tomorrow, I’ll use what’s the best platform then. Right now, it’s Rearden metal.

  17. M,

    1. I prefer whore-slut.

    2. I actually like the idea that people don’t fiddle with the proposals I send them. Allows me to do clean version control.

    3b. Pencil neck muppet.

    4. Yes, avoid MS. I blame all those hot chicks that seem to like sms flirting.. but it’s not so bad with a full keypad.

    5. Says the Corel Draw fan boy when better tools exist. You seem to think the unwashed-ignorant-HTML-emailing-masses care about “integration”.. ok, so maybe they can stick a spreadsheet in a document, whOOOpy. Who cares. I think OSX has a better “integration” experience anyway.

    In the end, it’s about the moral high ground and you are on the wrong team son.

  18. J,

    1. Fine.

    2. *Sigh*. You still don’t get this interaction/collaboration thing, do you? You keep on building glorified plumbing, OK? Leave the intelligent stuff to “us” (whoever we are).

    3. So if all the hot chicks in the world only sent/received HTML mail, you’d concede? Nice moral high ground there.

    3b. Plumber-boy muppet.

    4. Corel isn’t the best raster tool, everyone knows that. It is however the best vector tool, in the right hands. You’d probably argue that, but I don’t care. Besides, Photoshop monkeys are almost as bad as you UNIX lot when it comes to ignorance.

    5. *Sigh* (again). Sticking spreadsheets in documents and e-mails and wherever else easily is exactly the kind of stuff that adds value for knowledge workers. I know you don’t quite understand this, because plumbers don’t usually have CEOs in their e-mail friend circles (see previous comment thread), but I do. Oh wait, you deal with people up where the air is rarified these days. Sorry, my bad.

    I’m done, thanks, it’s been fun.

  19. M,

    2. Not sure what plumbing has to do with PDF documents and version control

    3. They can read plain text just fine.

    3b. Plumber-boy muppet.

    4. But the Adobe tools are obviously the better “platform” _today_, “Rearden metal”, better integration, blah blah, all your arguments for MS. So, I guess you using Corel as (the best) vector tool makes you a plumber too!

    5. I can stick a spreadsheet in a document in most free office apps.

    This reminds me of that Churchill quote.. “Winston, you’re drunk.” “You’re ugly. And tomorrow morning I’ll be sober, but you’ll still be ugly.”

    You see, I could install your OS, use your keyboard layout and your mail client in about an hour (being safe since I last used Muppet OS 95 in 1997), it would be painful, but trivial.. I don’t see most MS muppets using and understanding my tools in a few lifetimes.

  20. Nice post – I’d have to respectfully disagree with some of what you’ve said though. Our highest conversion hotspots on the html mails are though image links, and conversion through html versions are much higher than text, with very few respondents (and to put it in context, we sent out 500 000 emails last month) actively opting to receive text. To put it very simplistically, I reckon it’s mainly the tech savvy who prefer text…the normal guy on the street *likes* pictures, likes pretty emails and probably finds the navigation (especially around our longer newsletters) WAY easier in html. We have a total of about 10 html newsletters, some of which are quite long and involved – by using clear navigation, menus, etc his user experience is made effortless. I’d have to agree on some fronts that text is preferable, but on the whole, when an html newsletter is designed right (and that’s with uber-simple, streamlined code), it will pretty much always win over text with the average user (and if it is designed right, the text version will be just as attractive to the user who prefers text as the html version is, meaning you have to design for both).

    In our case which involves sending out content rich newsletters of niche interest to those who subscribe to them, one would expect the user to prefer text, but it’s just not the case. I guess I’d liken it to surfing the net – you appreciate an attractive webpage when you land on it – if it were plain text, how would you react? I know I’d turn around and say YUK!

    I think people are turned on by the visual elements in html newsletters (just look at eye-tracking studies) they apply to html newsletters just as they do to websites. I also think what you’ve said depends very much on context, content and audience – it’s easy to extrapolate your personal user experience onto the “ignorant masses”, but at the end of the day it’s them who pay the bills by clicking through. I’d advise the designer to be wary of his personal preferences and always walk in the shoes of his end user – before making assumptions about the end user, put in the hours and find out what he actually prefers and, no matter how nonsensical it may seem to you, keep him happy.

    1. Sure, but..

      In my days of writing and sending newsletters I would:

      * Make a website with the full newsletter, pretty pics, nice layout blah, blah, blah..

      * Create a front-page for the newsletter, a summary of no more than 5 “stories” (with links), with one intro sentence per story. This would also be html and would also be on a web server.

      * Send a plain text email with the summary pointing to the front-page.

      User scans the text, finds something useful, goes to the cover page.


      I also like this because I end up with a useful web based archive of newsletter content.

  21. That would be ideal for us, but for some reason we elected not to host the full versions of the newsletters on our site (although I origionally proposed that we should).

    We also send the full newsletter as we assume that there are still people out there using dial-up, who would download the newsletter, logoff and read it 9not sure how relevant that is now).

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